The consequences of visitors

One of the consequences of having so many visitors while I've been here in Paris is that I haven't written nearly as much on this site as I'd intended. Indeed my little notebook is filled with post topics going back to the day after my arrival that have yet to be written. I'll try to get some down when I return, but it's not the same.

I don't know where all the time went, it seems like I just arrived here, and now I find it's nearly May, the flowers that were blooming upon my arrival are all passed, and even the lilac on my terrace is browning now. My French is improved but not where I'd like it to be. I've seen more of the city but not nearly all I wanted to visit. And somehow there remains a list of restaurants to visit, photos to take, and sites to scale. No matter how many visits I make, it's never enough.

Tonight I think I'll enjoy one last plate of oysters — my new favorite thing to eat as much as possible while in Paris — and a nice coupe de Champagne. Maybe I'll wander the streets one last time and get some final pictures of Parisians strolling in the evening. And perhaps one last ice cream. Tomorrow a final pain au chocolat and un express and a long sad taxi ride to Charles de Gaulle airport and the flight back to the US. I must start planning my return as soon as possible!

Two things to know about France

Here are two tips for you regarding France and things that are not like they are in the United States. First of all, what French people consider the first floor is what Americans call the second floor. Until you get used to it, you'll be one floor off wherever you go. Second is meat temperature. French waiters will tell you that à point means "medium" and that saignant plus is "medium rare." In their minds, this may be true.

But just as the first floor starts on the second, so the meats are one off from their American counterparts. If you like "medium rare" in the US, order à point, no matter what anyone tells you. It means roughly "the point" and is easy remember with this handy phrase: "If I don't order my meat à point, it will not have gotten to the point that could be considered cooked."

When friends visit you in Paris

Over the course of the past three weeks, I've had a variety of friends come to visit me here in Paris. They can be categorized in the following three groups:

Some who speak no French at all
They do things like: drink from the wine carafe rather than their glass; they walk up to the window of an ice cream shop and say, Au Revior!; or they bump against a woman's breast on the dance floor and when she slaps them, they respond with Merci!

Some who speak a little French
They successfully buy telephone cards for the pay phone and figure out how to call my American mobile. They order beers at bars and buy bottles of wine at the corner store. They order their dinner in French and get what they expect.

Some who are fluent in French and studied it for 15 years
They walk into the tabac and ask the Madame behind the counter for les tampons. She regretfully responds that she does not sell them. The friend exits, confused, only to realize on the street that he's asked for tampons and not les timbres, or what he actually wanted: stamps.

Rediscovering Brasserie Balzar

a photo of the Balzar's signI'm not sure how it was that I first decided to go to the Brasserie Balzar in Paris, but I remember it clearly. It was October, 1996 and I'd spent the week with my mom at an apartment she'd rented. To thank her, I took her out to dinner at Balzar. It was the first time we ever ordered a bottle of wine at dinner together, and we imagined ourselves quite French when we finished our meals with digestifs of Armagnac and Cognac. Though our French was minimal at best, the waiters were friendly and helpful and it was a magical evening I remember fondly.

I returned a few days later with my parents and had my first plate of escargots, and at the end of the meal as we left, I stopped to tell the maitre d' — in my really bad French — that his restaurant was my favorite restaurant in the whole world. He gave me a little postcard picture (in B&W) of the restaurant with all the waiters out front from what looked like a long time ago. I thanked him and smiled a lot, and I still have that card.

Fast forward to many returns to Paris, each with a requisite visit to Balzar. And each time, good, but somehow fading. Reading Paris to the Moon a few years ago reminded me of my love for Balzar and heightened my expectations upon return visits, but the Balzar never seemed *as* good as it had during previous trips.

Last week I met a colleague for lunch at Balzar and left deflated, and a little sad. The meal itself wasn't bad, it just wasn't great and the magic, it seemed, was gone. Perhaps, given all my culinary experiences in the past nine years, I had outgrown Balzar. I'd told Jason this sad state of affiars when he'd arrived, and so the other night while walking in the neighborhood, we decided we'd give it another try, for old times sake.

"Was it possible to take two for dinner without a reservation?" I asked the mustachoed gentleman in a black suit at the door.

"But of course!" he replied happily, and he lead us to a little table in the corner. I ordered my aperitif (kir vin blanc) and we began to discuss the menu when Jason asked what andouillete was. Before I could really answer, the waiter appeared at our table.

(The following dialogue occurred in French, yay!)

"Have you had andouillete before?" he asked.

"No," I said.

"Then you cannot have it! It is not for those that have never had it before. It is a specialty, but a specialty 95% of people do not like. I am sorry."

Since we had no intention of ordering it, I wasn't upset to hear this. And of course, our waiter went on in detail to explain just why we couldn't have it: its smell and, using his stomach, explained where it came from. Too many people, it seems, order the andouillete and then are quite unhappy when it arrives. He was very nice about it, said he wouldn't eat it either, just too strong for him. And he pointed out other specialties on the menu.

It was reminded me of my first trip to Balzar, when the waiter, upon hearing my mother and I both order Cognac, asked whether we knew Armagnac. When he found out we didn't, he said we must have one Cognac and one Armagnac. At Balzar I find this behavior by waiters to be very considerate, almost paternal. They are concerned that you have a good experience while dining, whether experience means trying something new, or avoiding something new because it might be too much.

Throughout the meal, the waiter continued to impress. He was very sweet, continuing to speak with me in French (he helped me correct my pronunciation of raie and told me it was la when I asked), and was happy to bring two forks when we ordered the tarte aux fraises for dessert. My warm feelings for Balzar returned as we ate. And by the time our meal was over and the check paid, I felt happy again in my favorite restaurant in the world. I headed to the bathroom and Jason waited for me at the door. We said good night to the maitre d' and as we exited, I asked if he'd said good bye to our waiter, since I hadn't seen him.

"No, I didn't. I didn't see him." he told me.

"Drat!" I thought. I had wanted to say good bye.

We walked down the street, past the front of the restaurant, and I looked in through the windows, towards where our table had been. Then I caught site of our waiter! He was in the back by the kitchen, looking across the room towards our table and seemed to notice we'd left. I waved good bye from outside. He saw me and smiled a big smile and then waved back. My heart warmed; I loved our waiter. I loved our dinner. I loved Balzar once again.

Brasserie Balzar
49, rue des Ecoles
75005 Paris

The carafe of water

One of the eternal questions that plagues me here in Paris is the question of the carafe of water. Why is it that every time I order une carafe de l'eau I stand a roughly 30% chance of getting it? And why is it that whenever a French person seems to order absolutely anything — even just a tiny coffee — they seem to get a liter of water alongside? Why? My food comes. My wine comes. But hardly ever do I get the water without repeating my request several times. I am now practicing how to say, "Monsieur, I am dying of thirst. The carafe, please!" in French. Is this some secret way for the French to stick it to me while still being polite?

For the French speakers

Here's one for my foodie French-speaking soon-to-be-or-already-are-in-France friends: Les 100 meilleurs bistrots à moins de 30 €. Note: The link points to ones in Paris, see the sidebar for those outside the Île-de-France. For the non-French speakers out there, it's a list of "The 100 best 30 € and under bistros."

I've been to two on the Paris list so far this visit: L'Ami Marcel (which was mentioned in the April 2005 Gourmet article "The Bistro Boom"); and L'Epi Dupin. Both were very good and I'd recommend either for a lovely meal. And see, if I were less lazy, I would have written posts about eating there! As penance, if my dinning companions post about the meals, I promise to make the appropriate links.

Eating on a Saturday night

I've been doing a fairly good job of eating at lots of yummy places while here in Paris. Obviously I've been doing a fairly crappy job of documenting those meals, mostly out of sheer laziness. But last night we decided to eat in for a change, and to soften the repeated blows my wallet has taken during this trip. To turn the documentation tide, I present a photo of what we had for dinner on Saturday night.

For our shopping, we decided we'd head to La Grande Epicerie Paris, the amazing food market at The Bon Marché — one of Paris' grand department stores. We started in the wine section and being, in reality, poser gourmands and wine afficionados, we just grabbed two bottles that looked good and tried to escape before the woman started speaking to us in French about wine. My French class hasn't gotten to that level of interaction yet, and I wasn't up to the challenge. The take? A half bottle of Domaine Pradelle Crozes-Hermitage, 2002 (white) and a full size 2000 Saint-Joseph from Ferraton Père & Fils. Where they good? Seemed so to us. We're pretty much happy with anything from the Rhône.

Next stop, the meat counter where we procured some mousse de canard. Somehow I managed to leave it out of the nice photo, so here it is just tossed on a plate. Then, on to the cheese counter!

Here we were at a loss as there were just too many cheeses to choose from. Though I have French Cheeses: The Visual Guide to More Than 350 Cheeses from Every Region of France, it was no use among the vast selection (because I didn't have it with me and hadn't memorized it all, yet…). So I used my every-improving French to explain our predicament to Madame la Fromagère:

(In French, sort of)

Madame, we do not know the cheeses well of France. Is it possible that you make a selection of three cheeses for us to know more the cheese?

Of course!, she replied, quite happy to be put to such a test. So she asked a few more questions and we ended up with a Brie de Meaux, a Comté Rivoire, and a bouton Charolai which was a button of a lovely aged goat cheese. They were all excellent, and Madame chose well for us. The Charolai was my favorite new cheese in a long time.

We had also picked up a saucisson sec aux myrtilles, a dry sausage with a blueberry(!) coating. It was good, but didn't have much blueberry flavor. And of course, the requisite baguettes upon which to spread our yummy cheese and mousse. It was tasty and easy and I have to say, I want to do it again very soon!

Getting out of ruts

From On Cruise Control: How to get out of a life rut by Cynthia Hanson:

Along the journey of life, we're destined to fall into some ruts. Sometimes, they're big (think career change). Other times, they're small (think new exercise routine). Either way, experts say it's inevitable that we'll become bored with one or more facets of our lives.

This article talks about identifying ruts and then how to go about getting out of them. Something good to think about and be aware of.